For weeks now I have been pondering the true meaning of Shaq's vocal demands for the ball and his efforts to mold the Suns in his image.
He's not been subtle:
“I have been telling my teammates all year, if they get the ball to me and let me do what I do then I can still put up those numbers. I guess because I am 35 they think that I am too old to do it. Guys were looking for me and I was taking the high percentage shots and try to keep my shooters involved.”
“I think that is how this team should play, especially the way I am shooting free-throws. It should be an inside-outside game. I have been in the league 15 years and been to the finals six times and that is how you get there. Once we do that and develop consistency and stop turning the ball over, we will be alright.”
There was a time where this type of inmate running the asylum outburst would have turned me completely off.
You player. You play. Coach coaches. Simple, right?
This is a special case however, and it is much more complex then Shaq putting up big numbers and looking like Aaron Nelson secretly discovered that Ponce de Leon's white whale actually ran through the Salt River valley.
Shaq has been the most consistent Suns player in terms of effort and energy and has clearly taken over the team off the court as well. Just watch how he gathers the troops under his big wings for a quick huddle or how he joshes with Goron Dragic and "Pony Boy" Amundson on the bench. That's how the alpha dog establishes dominance in this pack and you don't have to be Ceasar Milan to understand that.
The other alpha males though need a bit more persuasion. So just like when a military junta stages a coup d’état and quickly seizes control of the radio and TV stations, Shaq is using the media to send his message of power.
This signal is aimed squarely at Am'a'r'e telling him that he had his chance to be "da man" and letting the aching Canadian know that it's ok to step aside now and to assume his more natural role of quiet assassin. He's telling you and me that things have changed in Phoenix and the new Sheriff has reported for duty.
Shaq has made it clear that he's the one with the rings and that we've tried to follow Nash to the promised land and learned that wasn't enough to get it done. Point guards do not lead teams to titles. That's a big man's game and Shaq has realized that Amare for all his talent and drive is not going to get it done.
At some point around the time the emotionally drained and effortless Suns were getting their asses kicked by New Orleans and Dallas Shaq looked around at his mates and in all likely hood with the approval of Porter and Kerr he stepped into the vacuum that power abhors.
He tried being the role player and aging mentor. He tried the Amare Stoudemire Project and found his pupil lacking. Now he's gone back to what he knows and I can't blame him for it.
He's the one with four rings while the critically aclaimed Suns were racking up disappointments and heartbreak.
Shaq's team does what?
The question then isn't who's team it is. The question is what it means to be Shaq's team. What style of play can we expect? How far can Shaq really take this team?
There's really two areas to consider when we define Shaq's Team. On the court style of play and team make up and character. Or to use the B school term - culture.
The plan here despite all the talk of uncertainty of style and fast vs. slow is really very simple.
1) Pound the ball into the paint and soften up the belly of the defense. Going to Amare and Shaq early will expose most teams interior weaknesses and on many nights get guys in foul trouble. This has a tendency to free up shooters and clear lanes for slashers. We have plenty of those in JRich, Hill, Barnes and Barbosa not to mention Steve Nash who's been known to shoot pretty well.
Despite everything this season, the Suns remain the number one most efficient shooting team with an EFG of 54.4%. That's quite a weapon (and safety valve) to have when you can score more points on fewer shots. Just image when the turnovers get under control and the rebounding is there and you can actually match teams FGA's. Deadly.
2) Defend better but not best. The Suns understand they aren't going to be a lock down 48 minute defensive team like the C's are or the Spurs were. They are going to keep teams out of the lane and force them to shoot jump shots. What they are working on adding (and have done successfully in the past few games) is fourth quarter defense.
Over the past four games the Suns have allowed an average of 16.5 points per fourth quarter. That includes final minute lock downs of Denver, San Antonio (who didn't score for 3+ minutes until Mason's buzzer beater) and Memphis.
The improvement trend since the JRich trade is noticeable and rapid. Rotations are getting better and bench players are coming in and holding leads. Mostly though is improved effort and energy and desire to win.
Check back in 6 weeks and the Suns will likely be right around the 15th spot in defensive ranking.
3) Run when ready. All season Porter has said that he wants to run off rebounds and turnovers. The problem has been the turnovers were going the other way and the fast breaks were going against instead of for the Suns. That's improved as well with the turnover rate dropping to 14.7 over the past 7 games which is down from over 16 per game.
The Suns are putting up points and moving the ball quickly at times and using Shaq as a massive trailer coming down the lane on the secondary delayed break.
With Shaq resting, the Suns are running more but are less reliant on Nash to create everything.
When things do go array the answer isn't more Nash. The answer is more Shaq.
4) Nash and Amare pick and roll FTW. By feeding the ball to Shaq early and playing off him with shooters like JRich, Barnes and Hill the Suns can save the most potent offensive weapon in the league to come in and close games like Mariano Rivera in his prime.
When you have one great weapon and you use it too much teams can adjust and react. Kobe can't shoot lights out for 4 quarters but when he needs to take over and close a game he can do that. The Suns use Nash and Amare to similar effect against every team not from San Antonio (who have somehow managed to crack this code).
In the end it's a simple but devastatingly effective formula.
A blend of old school rim rocking low post dominance finished with flashy Nashy and Amare smooth, sprinkled with a helping of late lock down D and the occasional prison break.
When (if) this team gets the turnovers under control it has the potential to be the most balanced and varied scoring machine since last year's Suns and can easily keep pace with the Lakers combination of Kobe, Pau and bench. The defense will be solid in the paint with the ability to get key stops. Teams will have to shoot lights out to beat the Suns in a 7 game series. If that is, the team continues on the course it's currently charting.
That's Shaq's team.
Even more important then the X's and O's of systems and styles is the heart, will and toughness that Shaq will demand of his pack. Shaq has made it clear that winning is the only option and is signaling the end to the excuse riddled attitude that has dominated the Suns locker room for years.
After losing to Portland, Amare responded in typical fashion:
"We did everything we could out there to win," said Suns forward Amaré Stoudemire, who tied a career high with eight assists (to no turnovers). "It's tough to stop a team when everybody's going. They got hot on us.
"From a defensive effort, we played well enough to win."
while Shaq had a different story to tell:
"Yeah, I'm (ticked) off," center Shaquille O'Neal said. "Fifteen and 11 (the Suns' record) is not (expletive) acceptable to me."
"It's another game that we gave away," O'Neal said. "It's about the eighth game this year that we've given away. So we've got to learn how to defend, how to stop people, how to rebound, everything. Long shots equal long rebounds."
Shaq is starting to change the culture of this Suns team by making it clear that moral victories are for bloggers and not for all star power forwards.
In the last two games, Shaq did something past Suns teams always struggled with - overcoming adversity.
It's not just winning games with Nash's back spasming and with Amare rendering himself useless. It's about grabbing this team by the nuts and refusing to lose no matter what. That's the kind of resilience that the Spurs have ingrained in their flop sweat.
Terry Porter knows a thing or two about playing tough and Nash didn't earn the nickname OTC (one tough Canadian) by accident but neither of those guys can control the paint and send the message that this is no longer a soft finesse team.
If Shaq can stay healthy and continue to lead the way with his effort, energy and mental toughness the rest of the Suns will follow and that will make the biggest difference come playoff time.
The big risk with The Shaq Plan is his health and ability to maintain this level. You would think it highly unlikely that the Big Rejuvenate could keep this up but then again, who would have thought he'd be playing this well at all.
Anyone can get hurt at anytime so there's no point in worrying over that but elderly big men do have a few more risk factors then others. At some point we will see what this Suns team can do without Shaq just as we've now seen some success without Amare and Nash. Hopefully, even if the Big Body is missing, the Big Will will remain.
However this drama plays out, it's not going to be boring. Happy Shaq Year everyone.